Ever since the publication of Pauwels and Bergier’s Morning of the Magicians in the ’60s, there has been an ever-growing fascination with opposing accepted history with the much more interesting possibilities of speculative “alternative history” (which I’ll abbreviate as “alt.history” in honor of the now fading Usenet newsgroups with the “alt.” designation).
Of course, Pauwels and Bergier were hardly the originators of this approach. Madame Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine proposed an esoteric understanding of history that alluded to whole other layers of actors and forces at work behind the scenes. Karl Marx’s historical materialism proposed to toss previous historical interpretations into the “dustbins of history,” while various antiquarians of the 18th and early 19th centuries, such as Dupuis and Higgins, accumulated evidence in favor of their alternative theories of religious and cultural origins.
But it is only in the past forty years or so that this fascination with overturning conventional history has grown from a niche preoccupation into a facet of mainstream pop culture. The popularity of the Daily Grail itself owes much to this enthusiasm, and I assume that if you are reading this you probably enjoy a good dose of alternative thinking yourself.
That’s perfectly fine with me. Consensus Reality is not all it’s cracked up to be and I’ve long been an advocate of following the truth wherever it leads.
What gives me pause, however, are the results when we mistake speculative theories for proven facts and then build upon those theories with further speculative theories also mistaken for facts. All too soon it is possible to find oneself in a dogmatic belief system where we’re convinced that we’ve uncovered the “real history” and any other version of history is, ipso facto, bunk.
I am not a professional historian – and let me be clear about that – but in some forty years of reading and studying history (accepted history, alternative history, esoteric history, and otherwise), I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom of the conservative approach to history that most historians take. (By “conservative” I don’t mean the politically ideological stance commonly associated with that term these days, but rather a cautious approach to what one accepts as a “proven fact.”)
Professional journalists are taught to seek out at least two separate and credible sources for any purported fact before giving it the time of day. We, as readers – and even more importantly as researchers – should be just as rigorous and selective, and possibly even more so.
This was the approach that we upheld at Gnosis Magazine during the 15 years of its existence (1985-1999). We were dealing with esoteric spiritual traditions as our focus, but that didn’t mean that we had to accept every outlandish claim that clothed itself in esoteric garb. Sure, anything might be possible, but that was not the same as accepting that anything was probable. Common sense and Occam’s Razor were our two steady guides and a preference for reputable published sources for citations was our editorial policy.
More recently, I’ve spent the last decade delving into the history of Freemasonry, (see my book The Masonic Myth), and if there was ever a field burdened with alt.history speculations upon speculations, Masonic history is it.
The fraternal brotherhood’s penchant for secrecy, (which once served as a safeguard against reactionary forces and facile misinterpretations), has guaranteed that it is quite difficult for “outsiders” to get a handle on what Masonry is truly about. By the same token, scant historical sources and the propagation of romantic myths within the fraternity itself have guaranteed that many Masons’ beliefs about their own history are dubious at best.
Into this void have leapt the alt.historians (many of them Masons themselves) with their dramatic speculations, with the result that recent decades have blessed us with far too many half-baked books about the Freemasons, the Knights Templar, Rosslyn Chapel, and all points in between. When you have an essentially blank canvas, it is possible to paint nearly anything upon it.
I can well understand the pleasure and rewards that alt.history provides. Authors’ books sell better if they provide intriguing and suggestive “discoveries” and readers have the thrill of gaining access to the “inside story.” I can still recall the excitement generated by Trevor Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny, which purported to reveal an occult connection between the Spear of Longinus and the rise of Hitler. What wasn’t revealed at the time, however, was that much of the book’s historical account drew upon the clairvoyance of Walter Stein, a follower of Rudolf Steiner.
Call me old fashioned, but clairvoyance (or channeling) has never topped my list of reliable methods of historical research. It is at best a kind of self-generated hearsay – at worst an invitation to a delusional subjectivity puffed up with the authority of the Unconscious.
I remain a firm believer in the capacity of intuition to incisively grasp a situation or size-up a new acquaintance, but that is a far cry from putting one’s intuition in over-drive and “discovering” facts of history. (Yes, I’ve had my share of flashes about this or that historical episode, but I try mightily to distinguish those hunches from proven facts.)
Admittedly, most alt.history doesn’t derive from clairvoyance, but too often it might as well. Many alt.historians will have a numinous hunch (“Rosslyn Chapel is encoded with Templar symbols!”) and pursue whatever clues may bolster that hunch. Thread together enough such clues and you’ve got a saleable book proposal. It’s a respectable living, but its actual relationship to accurate history is questionable.
Most alt.history books, while nominally non-fiction, actually compose a sub-genre of fiction that we might call reality-generating fantasy. By purporting to be factual, they gain the prestige of truth, but what is really at work is the creative imagination. Readers get to savor fantasy as if it were actual reality, a process that renders history into a kind of lucid dream.
But in case you are one of those who resist falling for that dodge – who wish to discover reality for what it really is (Bad News and all) – I encourage you to keep your skepticism just as sharp regarding alt.history as regarding orthodox history. My hunch, clairvoyant or not, is that actual history falls somewhere in between.